TIFF: Will Michael Moore's 'Where to Invade Next' Contend for an Oscar?

The rabble-rousing filmmaker behind the highest-grossing doc of all-time unveiled his latest — a film about ways in which America compares unfavorably to other countries around the world — north of the border on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11.
Robert D. Ward
'Where to Invade Next'

Where to Invade Next, divisive doc filmmaker Michael Moore's latest, had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival's Princess of Wales Theatre on Thursday night. Unsurprisingly, the picture — in which Moore travels throughout Europe and also visits Tunisia to highlight the progressive ways other countries handle social issues — is sure to please the rabble-rousing lefty's fans and outrage his opponents.

Moore came to Canada with a film that turns out to be entirely about the ways in which America is inferior to other countries around the world — and it certainly did not go unnoticed, either by the people who found the film to be an important wake-up call (it received a 30-second ovation in the theater) or by those who would prefer Moore relocate to one of those other countries (some exited the theater faster than others), that the film let out after midnight on the 14th anniversary of 9/11.

In addition to fans of Moore, whose Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) remains the highest-grossing doc of all-time, the screening was jam-packed with reps of distributors big and small, since Where to Invade Next — which few even knew about prior to the announcement of TIFF's lineup, as it was made on the q.t. — does not yet have a U.S. distributor. Among those with representatives in the room: Paramount (which currently has no Oscar hopeful for this season but previously guided a doc, An Inconvenient Truth, to the winner's circle), IFC Films, Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions and Netflix. WME is handling the film's sale and obviously has high hopes for it, in light of the fact that WME's Ari Emanuel was personally in attendance.

So, this awards season, will Moore's latest, when it inevitably finds a distributor, go the way of Roger & Me (1989), his career-breakthrough that was shockingly snubbed by the Academy, or Bowling for Columbine (2002), which ended up earning him not only the first of his two Oscar noms (he subsequently was nominated for 2007's Sicko), but his sole victory?

That largely depends on how the current members of the Academy's documentary branch, which determines the doc Oscar nominees, regard Moore's very specific brand of filmmaking. For years, its members were older and conservative and had major reservations about doc films that employed non-traditional storytelling techniques, such as reenactments, animation and, most relevant to Moore, a filmmaker inserting himself or herself into a film and helping to shape events, as opposed to standing back and observing them, as in cinema verite.

The doc branch, though, has brought in many new members in recent years, and my sense is that the old-guard that probably stunted Roger & Me's chances is mostly gone, replaced increasingly by younger people who don't share those strong objections to his approach, and who sometimes even strive to emulate it (such as Morgan Spurlock).

Another factor, though, may be that Where to Invade Next feels like a version — and arguably a less-partisan, gentler version — of something we've all seen Moore do before. Sure, he is still front-and-center talking with people about his concerns, only now he's not directly confronting "bad guys" because the "bad guy," in his estimation, is America itself and what he feels it has become. And, for all of his stats and graphics and funny clips that suggest America's decline — and there are many — he may find it a lot harder to convince Americans to feel disgust and outrage about their country as a whole than he did when he was targeting George W. Bush (not that the 43rd president doesn't receive digs in this film, too).